Before Whole Foods Market officially opened, even a glimpse of its construction could inspire palpitations among food lovers. And news of Trader Joe's coming sent those same people right over the edge. No matter that both stores are planted smack dab over one of the last farms in Short Pump. The temples of green, sustainable and local groceries have arrived — and if we need to sacrifice a few acres of green, sustainable, local pasture to get them here, so be it.
Trader Joe's has the edge on price, but Whole Foods grabs everything else in terms of sheer size and variety. It also has an overwhelmingly good selection of prepared food, both hot and reheat-it-at-home. Some choices change daily, but other things, such as the lasagna and pizza, are there all the time.
There's a hot bar, two salad bars, a deli case, a sushi case, a pick-it-up-quick case, and — and — a wood-fired pizza oven. That doesn't include the soup table and the barbecued-meats bar tucked in the back by the wine department. It's enough to make you wonder about the value of home cooking when confronted with such convenience and marketing ingenuity. I mean, what am I wasting all my time for every night when dinner's hot and ready for me to pick up?
The chicken schnitzel is juicy, and although the bread-crumb crust doesn't really survive microwaving, the bacon and mushrooms sautAced in wine more than make up for its lack of crunch. I put the potato latkes in the toaster oven instead of the microwave and was thrilled with their crispy exterior and the way they complemented the German wursts with sautAced onions and peppers. Although I'm a fan of the balsamic Brussels sprouts, no one else at my house is, but I think that's more because of their unavoidable Brussels-sproutness than their preparation.
At the hot bar, I tried a cinnamon-y pasticcio and a bland, unexciting moussaka, but then again, Stella Dikos and her masterful Greek cuisine have spoiled us Richmonders of a certain age forever. The General Tso's chicken is bland as well, and mushy, but unexpectedly moist. Most impressive is the barbecue bar, known officially as the WFM Smokehouse.
A fellow customer guided me there and told me that she buys the beef brisket for her family's main course because at $7.99 per pound it's cheaper than if she cooked it herself. She was right, and she was also right about its smoky tenderness and all-around excellence. The pulled pork right next to it rivals most out there in the great, wide world of Richmond barbecue, although some might argue it's a little too soft, and the two sauces for it — Kansas City-style and North Carolina — are forgettable. The WFM Smokehouse also offers a garlic-pepper chicken that tastes more like pepper than garlic, although I gave that little slip-up a pass because I liked it so much anyway.
There are some good things at the salad bar, although no one liked the cocoa nibs in the goji and aAai super-foods salad or the truly terrible salmon and haricots vert salad full of hard potatoes roasted to within an inch of their lives. Better is the French lentil salad full of fancy du Puy lentils and mandarin oranges, and best are the gigante beans. Big white beans are crazy-expensive if you buy them yourself (think $20-plus a pound) and these, in their modest vinaigrette and fresh parsley, come all ready to serve and pass off as your own.I live too far away to make Whole Foods part of my weekly routine, and for that my wallet is grateful. Not everything is a bargain there, and in fact, most things are not. But for those days when the thought of dinner makes you want to slam down your All-Clad and run away from home, Whole Foods has a heady array of sanity-saving choices. S
Whole Foods Market
11173 W. Broad St.
8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Hot bar: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday to Friday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.
Nonsmoking and handicapped accessible.